Manufacturing jobs are coming back to Miami-Dade. You just may not recognize them


You’re unlikely to hear a factory whistle calling out hard-hatters to start up a plant in Miami-Dade in 2019. But according to recent federal data, manufacturing jobs are making a return to the county.

In a new report, the Florida International University Jorge M. Pérez Metropolitan Center finds that between 2012 and 2017, Miami-Dade added about 5,000 new manufacturing jobs, an increase of 14 percent. It’s a faster pace of growth than Fulton County, Ga., which includes Atlanta; Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston; and King County, Wash., which includes Seattle.

“The sector continues to grow,” said Maria Ilcheva, a Metropolitan Center professor and author of the report. “This is a good confirmation of what’s occurring after decades of decline.”

Miami-Dade used to have plenty of manufacturing jobs—as many as 160,000 in 1990. But as the economy evolved and technology advanced, the figure declined to about 100,000 in 2007. The recession cost the region another quarter of its factory jobs.

But there has been a steady, if gradual, recovery since the industry bottomed out in employment, according to Michael Hicks, George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics at Ball State University and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research there.

This time, Dade’s manufacturing boomlet is largely concentrated among hand-crafted product makers and food-and- beverage producers. Such firms employ fewer workers on average than larger, traditional manufacturers like aerospace companies. And the pay is not much better than the median county earnings. The average pay in the local manufacturing sector is $47,815.

“The manufacturing sector in Miami is primarily composed of establishments that fall in the light-industry category, meaning that they produce small goods that will be sold to household consumers rather than to another manufacturer,” FIU’s report states. “Of the 2,847 manufacturing establishments reported by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, only 927 are classified in the advanced industry sector.”

The lack of advanced manufacturing locally likely accounts for the relatively unimpressive wages in the sector here, FIU says. Advanced firms like pharma and aerospace tend to pay much higher wages, but currently account for just one-third of Miami-Dade manufacturing establishments, according to the report.

Today, Miami-Dade manufacturers look more like Susan Cartiglia, founder of Radiate Kombucha. the shared kitchen commissary in Hialeah where she makes her brew, she and a handful of staff can (and, until the area recently stopped recycling glass, bottle), her best-selling beverages and ship it to area retailers.

To keep everything cost effective—and in keeping with the brand—all work is done by hand or with the assistance of hand-operated machines. Cartiglia says she produces about 85 cans can hour at full capacity.

“It’s a very manual process, very labor intensive,” she said.

Brewing is a common thread among many local producers. Chris Nolte, co-founder of Per’la coffee, a wholesale coffeemaker, has a facility on Bird Road that employs three.

“We try to keep a core group,” Nolte said. “We pride ourselves on process scalability; even though we roast more than companies of similar size, we try to be efficient.”

Jessica Do, founder and CEO of PalmPress Coffee, lets java fiends make their own brews through a drip-press gizmo she invented. Though much of the product is manufactured overseas, her facility in the Little River/Little Havana area handles final quality control and logistics. She is able to do the job with just one other person, and is still able to move hundreds of units in a typical month.

Do’s business highlights another trend Ilcheva observes: A flowering of manufacturing firms in the urban core. FIU finds that while the majority of firms categorized as manufacturing are still mostly concentrated along the Palmetto Expressway Corridor, an increasing number can be found closer to downtown.

Among them is Moonlighter, one of a handful of local “maker spaces” that hosts lathes, 3-D printers and other technology that allows users to fabricate items. One of its biggest clients is Watsco Ventures, which has used the space to create prototypes of its “Internet of Things” devices for its heating and air conditioning systems.

At Moonlighter, Watsco does “some rapid prototyping, super small and early stuff,” said Ivan Rapin-Smith, Watsco Ventures managing director.

Moonlighter co-founder Tom Pupo said the space has two-full time employees for now, but that demand has increased to the point that they are planning to move into a new space.

“It’s four times the size so we’ll definitely need more people,” Pupo said.

Traditional manufacturing hasn’t been left behind. Thema, an eyewear company founded in Italy, decided to put its U.S. operations, including a manufacturing facility, in Miami-Dade around 2013. Its factory, which employs about 20, is located just east of Opa-locka.

“We tried to replicate what our factory in Italy looks like,” said CEO Giulia Valmassoi. She said the company had “masters” from Europe come in to train its staff in Miami-Dade.

Ilcheva says that the growth of manufacturing in South Florida is a product of a broader national trend. Indeed, other parts of Florida, like the Tampa area, have a higher percentage of manufacturing jobs as a share of total employment.

But the fact that Miami-Dade is part of the wave is significant. Even if advanced manufacturing represents just a third of the manufacturing base, it has one of the largest economic multipliers of any industry, meaning it can spur additional job creation in other sectors.

“These findings present an opportunity we can build on,” she said.